After ending their century-long championship drought in 2016, the Cubs struggled to maintain that level of competitiveness despite their talented roster, resulting in a massive sell-off at the 2021 trade deadline that is currently yielding promising results as the club works its way back towards contention. Though the club added quality players like Marcus Stroman, Seiya Suzuki, and Yan Gomes ahead of the 2022 season, it was nonetheless a clear rebuilding year for the Cubs as they looked to turn the page on the previous core and begin to build around younger players like Nico Hoerner and Justin Steele.
After a surprisingly strong finish to the 2022 campaign where the club posted a 40-31 record over the season’s final ten weeks, the Cubs looked to jump-start their return to contention with a significant financial outlay over the offseason. While the club downgraded at catcher by swapping out three-time All Star Willson Contreras for Tucker Barnhart, the club shored up the rotation with multiyear deals for Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly and plugged a hole in center field by landing Cody Bellinger on a one-year deal.
Most importantly, the Cubs acquired a new face of the franchise by offering Dansby Swanson a seven-year deal worth $177MM. Early in the season, the club also extended both Nico Hoerner and Ian Happ through the end of the 2026 season, a further sign the team is committed to its current core of Swanson, Hoerner, Happ, Suzuki, and Steele. Unfortunately for Cubs fans, those deals have done little to pull the Cubs back into contention, as the team sports a 27-36 record as they sit 6.5 games out of a playoff spot while looking up at the Pirates, Brewers, and Reds in a weak NL Central division.
Still, the club has struggled to stay in the race, thanks in part to the struggles of many of those signings. Taillon has struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness in ten starts this season, Barnhart sports an OPS of just .433 and appears to have been supplanted by Miguel Amaya as Gomes’s primary backup, and the club’s offseason bullpen signings of Brad Boxberger and Michael Fulmer have combined for a whopping 27 earned runs in 41 innings of work.
That isn’t to say the moves president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and his front office made this past offseason were all mistakes; in fact, many of them have proven savvy in the early going. Swanson leads the quarter of star shortstops who hit free agency over the offseason in terms of both wRC+ and fWAR this season despite signing the smallest contract of the group, Bellinger has bounced back from two difficult seasons in LA to post above-average offensive numbers for the Cubs while Smyly has proven to be a stabilizing force in the club’s rotation with a 3.27 ERA (136 ERA+) in 13 starts for the Cubs this season.
The club has faced particularly significant issues on offense, with 267 runs scored in 2023, a figure that places them tied with the Padres for fourth-worst in the NL. With Bellinger, Happ, Suzuki, and Mike Tauchman posting strong numbers in the outfield while Swanson and Hoerner have been largely successful up the middle, the biggest culprits in the club’s lack of offense are the infield corners and the DH slot. The Cubs rank 22nd in the majors in terms of wRC+ at DH, 27th at third base, and 29th at first base.
With three key spots most lineups rely on to generate offense doing so at a well below-average rate, it’s no wonder the Cubs have frustrated with offensive struggles despite significant individual successes in 2023. To make matters worse, the club shipped out a pair of players in recent years who have proven to be major assets for their current clubs and would have surely shored up Chicago’s offense had they stuck on the roster.
Prior to the 2022 campaign, the Cubs traded right-handed slugger Harold Ramirez to the Rays for minor league infielder Esteban Quiroz just months after acquiring Ramirez from Cleveland. This move paved the way for the club to roster the likes of Michael Hermosillo and Clint Frazier as the 2022 season began, though both players struggled mightily, posting wRC+ figures of 16 and 87 during their time with the Cubs, respectively. Since joining the Rays, meanwhile, Ramirez has blossomed into a phenomenal slugger, with a .298/.342/.436 slash line (125 wRC+) in 170 games while playing first base, DH, and the outfield corners.
Had the Cubs held onto Ramirez, it seems likely they wouldn’t have felt the need to sign Mancini to fill a similar role this past offseason, opening up resources that could have been used to address a bullpen that ranks bottom four in the NL with a 4.53 ERA while improving significantly on Mancini’s own 83 wRC+ in 51 games this season.
As for third base, the Cubs entered spring training this season with a trio of infielders in consideration for two Opening Day roster spots: Nick Madrigal, Miles Mastrobuoni, and Zach McKinstry. Ultimately, McKinstry was shipped to Detroit in exchange for minor league reliever Carlos Guzman. That decision has proved to be another significant mistake, as Madrigal and Mastrobuoni have combined for -0.4 fWAR for the Cubs this season, with Madrigal’s 60 wRC+ in 35 games leading the duo offensively.
McKinstry, meanwhile, has gone on to post a breakout season for the Tigers. While playing second base, third base, shortstop, and both outfield corners, the 28-year-old utility player has posted a solid .256/.360/.388 slash line in 54 games that’s good for a wRC+ of 115. Had McKinstry remained with the Cubs, he could have shored up third base alongside Patrick Wisdom, who has struggled to a .149/.253/.310 slash line since the beginning of May, while also filling in elsewhere around the diamond during stints on the injured list for regulars like Suzuki and Hoerner.
In addition to the assistance both Ramirez and McKinstry could have provided the Cubs this season, each is controllable beyond the current campaign. The duo is expected to hit free agency after the 2025 and 2027 seasons, respectively, meaning both could have be key pieces in the lineup or on the bench with Chicago for years to come.
Many of the bigger moves the Cubs have made in recent years, such as the signings of Swanson, Stroman, and Suzuki, have worked out well to this point. Despite those successes, however, missteps regarding Ramirez and McKinstry have highlighted the importance of making the right moves at the margins when attempting to return to contention. Unless Wisdom, Christopher Morel, Trey Mancini, and Matt Mervis can collectively provide the internal improvements necessary at the infield corners to spark the offense going forward, the Cubs figure to enter the 2023-24 offseason with improving at the infield corners at the top of their to-do list.